China and the Middle East: Working Group Meeting I

On April 25-26, 2015, the first working group meeting of CIRS’ research initiative on “China and the Middle East” took place. A diverse, multi-disciplinary collective of scholars from China, the Middle East, the US, and elsewhere met in Washington, D.C., over the course of two days, to discuss the main features, trends, and implications of this multi-faceted relationship.

The foundations of China’s engagement with the Middle East have been economic in nature, and primarily based on the trade of energy commodities. As a result, the Middle East has assumed an important position in China’s global economic vision, which sees the region as a key part of its contemporary “Silk Road” flagship initiative, an effort to better connect China to the rest of Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. This economic relationship is evolving steadily. China is increasingly investing capital in the region, as for example in industry and infrastructure, rather than simply relying on the energy trade. Participants of the working group noted the potential of the shale gas revolution to alter the energy equation in the Middle East, with the US set to produce more gas than Saudi Arabia produces oil. China itself has its own substantial shale gas deposits. Another issue raised was China’s investment in green energy, currently the world’s leader, and the global implications of this. What will the above mean for China’s relations with the Middle East? The participants highlighted the need to fully interrogate the impact of China’s economic embedment in the region—in political, economic, and social terms.

An important consequence of this economic relationship has been the growth of a variety of socio-cultural connections between China and the Middle East. Chinese Muslims now reside across the Gulf, with some 200,000 Chinese citizens living in Dubai alone. As part of an Islamic education, a large number of Chinese Muslims study Arabic in China, but also abroad in Syria and Iran. Chinese Muslims have played a role in facilitating ties between China and the Middle East. Likewise, there is a sizeable Arab diaspora in China, who has emigrated to places such as Yiwu, a major Chinese trading hub. What is their impact as a community? Participants noted an increasing perception of China as a fertile ground for religious conversions, with anti-Shia bias taking ground as a result of the influence of Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi Islamic doctrine.  

On the political level, China’s engagement of the Middle East is also undergoing significant changes. One area this is reflected is the increasing Chinese trend towards multilateral engagement. This as opposed to the bilateralism that has traditionally characterized China’s relations with Middle Eastern countries. Participants observed that China is increasingly looking to multilateral platforms to formalize cooperation with the Arab world, one example being the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA), whose 2014 summit was held in Shanghai. The potential of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)-BRICS relations was also referenced, with discussants noting that while there are no formal ties currently, developments in this area could eventually have a profound impact. In political terms, one of the main variables affecting China’s engagement with the region has been the legacy of the Arab Spring of 2011. China has sought to maintain good relations with both established allies, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, but also with those countries undergoing domestic upheaval, such as Egypt and Syria. Here, the role of China as a “balancing” force in the Middle East is of relevance. Participants noted China’s ability to maintain positive relations with all the important regional actors simultaneously, although they claimed that this will become increasingly difficult in the future; one example raised was China’s 2011 veto of UN sanctions on Syria, which subsequently strained relations with Saudi Arabia and Turkey. China’s inherently pragmatic approach in the region was summarized by one participant as a case of “avoiding enemies, rather than having friends.”

In terms of the regional security architecture, China does not support absolute security for any one power in the region, rather it has sought a system that balances the interests of the various states. As a result, it has sought to encourage collective security arrangements. Yet China’s strategic stance in the region is undergoing change, becoming more pro-active as it consolidates its presence. Under President Xi-Jin Ping, China has adopted a regional security role for the first time, contributing towards maritime security, for instance. Participants argued that this will form an increasingly important area, noting that China’s role in the region has now entered a new phase. This was demonstrated during the Chinese Navy’s evacuation of Chinese citizens from Yemen in 2015, which underscored the increasing need for a physical presence in the region, to protect China’s interests. This reflects a broader evolution in the Chinese military presence in the region, which went from initially supporting construction projects and offering medical support, to now deploying combat units, as part of the UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan for example, as well as during antipiracy operations in the Gulf of Aden.

The possibilities for Chinese and US cooperation were also discussed. Participants noted that while the US and China define regional “stability” in very different terms in the context of the Middle East, great power cooperation remains integral to China’s approach in the region. While the US remains the predominant security guarantor, China’s regional involvement will only grow, although to date it has largely been content to ‘free ride’ in terms of security commitments. As such, it is important to identify the areas where Chinese and US interests align. Here the impact of US attempts to contain China were discussed, through its support of India for example. The participants questioned the extent to which China is rallying against this containment in the Middle East, in terms of its Silk Road initiative, naval expansion, and so forth.

Yet overall, the participants highlighted the lack of an overarching Chinese “grand strategy” in the Middle East. In contrast to say Africa, no “white paper” for the Middle East has been formulated. Instead, they noted China’s posture is predominantly reactive rather than pro-active. This is exacerbated by the fact that China’s knowledge of the Middle East is limited in its depth. Participants highlighted the need to explore internal Chinese discussions about China’s role in the Middle East, in terms of academic and policy institutions for instance. And furthermore to examine the primary state mechanisms guiding Chinese-Arab relations—identifying the key institutional actors within China, their respective roles, and their mutual interactions, so to ascertain a deeper understanding of China in the Middle East.

 

Participants and Discussants:

  • Mohammed Al-Sudairi, Gulf Research Centre
  • Jon B. Alterman, Center for Strategic and International Studies
  • Jacqueline Armijo, Qatar University
  • Zahra Babar, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Liao Baizhi, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations
  • Bing Bing Wu, Peking University
  • Manochehr Dorraj, Texas Christian University
  • John Garver, Georgia Institute of Technology
  • Barb Gillis, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Pan Guang, Shanghai Center for International Studies
  • Mehran Kamrava, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Dionysis Markakis, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • James Reardon-Anderson, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service
  • Joseph Sassoon, Georgetown University
  • Andrew Scobell, RAND Corporation
  • Jean-François Seznec, Georgetown University
  • Yitzhak Shichor, University of Haifa, and Hebrew University of Jerusalem
  • Degang Sun, Middle East Studies Institute at Shanghai International Studies University
  • Casimir Yost, Georgetown University

Article by Dionysis Markakis, Research Associate at CIRS